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Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Public In Practice: The Pipeline Problem

Editor's Note: This blogpost is part of a series taken from Public In Practice: A Field Guide to Public Interest Design in the Twin Cities. The series focuses on the conclusion of the book, a look at some of the issues in public interest design brought up by those doing this work in the Twin Cities. This installment focuses on "the pipeline problem."

There is no question that public interest design is a growing field. There are more and more organizations practicing some form of public interest design, more and more exposure to the field through media, social or otherwise, and more and more students who are interested in doing this kind of work for a living. And that's where things get complicated. While the number of students and young architects wanting to do public interest design is increasing, the way the go about doing so is still very unclear. Compared with a traditional path into architecture, with established firms, internships, and licensing, starting a career in public interest design is much more difficult. According to Thomas Fisher, Dean of the College of Design at the University of Minnesota, "that's one of our major challenges right now, which is the so called 'pipeline problem,' which is that there are a lot of students who are graduating and really eager to do this work, but are unsure of how to start."

Take the example of Laurie McGinley, designer at ESG Architects. After graduating with an undergraduate architecture degree in 2000 and working in a firm for a year, her desire to help others and make a difference in the world led her to join the Peace Corps, after which she figured she would go to grad school. "What ended up happening is that what I learned while being a volunteer about how the rest of the world lives made me actually averse to the field of architecture," McGinley said; "I kind of went as far away from it as I thought I possibly seemed like design was something wealthy countries spent money on and I couldn't see the practical applications of it." After not being able to connect her time in the Peace Corps with any aspect of her architectural education, McGinley spent seven years working as a web designer - before going back to grad school and getting a job at ESG, an architectural firm. So what drove her back to the field of architecture? McGinley, like many others, was inspired by the ideas of public interest design: "The reason I went back to grad school is that I finally started to see the connections of how design can help people whose babies are dying, who don't have roads, who don't have water...that's where I see my future career trying to go," she said. However, even newly armed with a renewed passion for design and architecture, McGinley says it's still incredibly hard to see where to go next, or how her passion for design that helps others can turn into an actual career. McGinley explained, "I have this question of, 'All right, I'm on what?'"

Dean Fisher sees firsthand the interest coming from students in this field, but he also sees a great demand for this kind of work from the rest of the world, and that, he says, is "the kind of paradox of it. While the route is less clear, the need is much greater. We just need to develop the institutional structure that allows this to happen." Fisher also views the recent Latrobe Prize report, "Wisdom From
 The Field: Public Interest Architecture In Practice," as a tool in helping lessen the pipeline problem. The report, which involved a massive survey of design professionals across the nation, outlined different approaches to practicing public interest design, and offered suggestions on how to support and grow the profession from within large institutions like the AIA or the NCARB.

Interested in reading more? Read the entire book here, or see the embedded link above.

Monday, November 17, 2014

2014 Fall Gathering

James Wheeler leads discussion on "What Next?" at the 2014 Public Interest Design Fall Gathering [photo credit Virajita Singh]

The 2014 public interest design Fall Gathering, which took place October 29th, was meant to bring both students and faculty interested in public interest design together to meet, network, get an update on latest college PID developments. Students and faculty were also there to engage in a facilitated discussion on what PID means to our college community and ideas for what should happen going forward.

The meeting, facilitated by James Wheeler, began with attendees sharing "What I know and What I want to know," from which various PID questions emerged. The discussion then followed the "Pro-Action Café" Method - where participants rotated around to different facilitators, each with their own question to focus on - to tackle three main topics as generated by the opening questions. The session then concluded with a wrap up as a large group, discussing steps to take: what now and what next? The following are just a few highlights and takeaways from the meeting

- The session led by Dean Tom Fisher, looking at defining PID, identified nine key words related to how PID is defined at the U of M: Community, engaged, problem-solving, process, cultural immersion, impact, with, people, and dignity.

- Kristine Miller, who led the group examining the question of "how can we better serve the community?", looked at ideas about the NDSA loan forgiveness and how the school can help students continue their projects outside of school to create ongoing relationships with the community.

- James Wheeler led a discussion around creating a PID curriculum, leading to ideas about Academia, Practice, and Theory all leading into and building off each other, and brainstorming ideas like "what if PID was part of every course?" or "what if there were real clients for every project?"

- The session looking at how to structure an educational program to prepare students for working in PID, led by Jim Lutz, examining what skills and values are needed in PID that might not be as apparent in a normal/existing design education. This led to a discussion on the importance of teaching ethics in a PID education, like empathy, cross-cultural competence, and the value of "street-scape" design and real world experience.

Post-It Notes from the session on "how can we better serve the community?" facilitated by Kristine Miller.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Blitz Building with Habitat for Humanity

Otto Habitat Blitz 077.jpg
Blitz building in action; photo credit Nathaniel Tollefson

I have been volunteering for Habitat for the last 10 years. I am a carpenter by trade and they were looking for volunteers. I was invited to do a 'blitz' build in West Virginia by my brother and his wife. I did not know what a 'blitz' build was but soon found out. The local chapter of Habitat partners with a group of traveling Blitzers who help build complete houses in one weekend to energize the local volunteering force. This build was two houses side by side is some of the most beautiful hillside riparian country I have seen. West Virginia is truly stunning. We built two houses in one weekend working side by side with volunteers, homeowners, inmates and local carpenters. When each house was complete before the last piece of siding would be nailed at the peak of a gable everyone who worked on the house would sign it. We would all gather around and support the ladder as the homeowner nailed that piece on high up on gable. Not a dry eye on site, everyone cried, whooped and hollered. I was hooked.

For the last 5-6 years I have been trying to do the same type of build but on a local scale in Minnesota. My aunt is the CFO of Habitat for Humanity St. Louis County chapter and has put me in touch with the local president Nathan Thompson. St. Louis County includes Duluth and areas straight north of there. We have done a blitz build every summer and met some great people. Nathan gets the foundation in and the site prepped before we arrive then we show up and give it our all for 30 hrs in two days and usually have a house built with just the interior left to do. I like to stay an additional day or two and enjoy the woods in the surrounding areas, right by BWCA.

This coming winter we will be doing a slightly different build. I am currently looking for volunteers to help design a habitat house to be built in the summer 2015. I am specifically looking at fellow undergraduate and graduate students interested in making a difference. SLCH4H is interested in lowering energy costs for their homeowners so we will be looking at foundation insulation, wall sections, and possible site orientations. The houses are small and on a tight budget which adds to the design challenge. Very soon you will see postings around Rapson Hall for meeting times and places. I am looking forward to working with the team that develops out of the process. Come to the meetings and sign up! As an additional incentive the hours working on Habitat count towards your IDP.

Nathaniel Tollefson
NL Tollefson Inc.
LIC# BC681638

Otto Habitat Blitz 056.jpgBlitz building in action; photo credit Nathaniel Tollefson

Otto Habitat Blitz 123.jpgBlitz building in action; photo credit Nathaniel Tollefson

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Dwell + DLGYAD Live! - From the National to the Local

Design Like You Give a Damn: Live! from Architecture for Humanity and Dwell Magazine; Photo by Virajita Singh

Last month Dwell Magazine held the inaugural East Coast offering of its successful design event in New York. Architecture for Humanity (AFH) partnered with Dwell on Design NY for its 5th annual Design Like You Give a Damn Live! humanitarian design conference. With three days of programming, the concurrent events created interesting opportunities for the mainstream and fast-becoming-mainstream field of public interest design (PID) to intersect.

The conference kicked off with an inspiring keynote presentation by Daniel Libeskind who shared his groundbreaking ideas and innovative work. This was followed by stimulating breakout sessions over the next two days covering a variety of topics: emerging trends ("The New Malleable Office"), technology ("Technology and Material Innovation"), urban development and public spaces ("Between Civic and Residential Architecture"), and interior design ("Living Large in Small Spaces"). A product showcase featured Blu Homes, Raydoor, IKEA, Humanscale, Vitra, Volvo, Marvin Windows and Doors, among others. An onsite bookstore organized by Dwell and Designers & Books was a personal favorite.

AFH's sessions were very well attended, often with standing room only attendance. The Design Open Mic event featured national and global architectural projects, including work from Mexico, Chile, Afghanistan, Israel, Philippines, Turkey, Hungary, Germany, and elsewhere. It was heartening to see so many public interest design projects from around the world. As the PID movement grows, it's time for stakeholders to share best practices, including those pertaining to design with other cultures and ways of community engagement. This is a conversation in which all sectors -- community, government, academia, and practice -- should be engaged.

DLYGAD Live Speaker
DLYGAD Live Conference, Unknown Speaker; Photo credit Virajita Singh

From the University of Minnesota College of Design's perspective it was great to connect with a number of staff from AFH who have been great partners with our faculty and PID initiatives over the last few years -- Eric Cesal, Darren Gill, Jacob Ehrenberg, Audrey Gallo and others. There are many synergies to be found in the numerous projects with which AFH is involved. As new executive director Eric Cesal stated in a recent interview, his goal is to "position Architecture for Humanity as a teacher and mentor". Opportunities abound for collaboration.

At our Public Interest Design Fall Gathering last week, many of the students and faculty present were in agreement that given the enthusiastic interest in PID across the College, support at the administrative and faculty level, and being in a region known for its philanthropy and humanitarianism, we are uniquely situated. With our local, national, and global partners, we are excited to be involved in this work. Stay tuned!

Virajita Singh is Sr. Research Fellow and Adjunct Assistant Professor at the College of Design, University of Minnesota.